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Red Barn: What the Option Should Have Been

The Petaluma General Plan leads to deeply flawed alternatives for the Red Barn site. StrongTowns points toward better solutions, but a key design eye will be required to consummate a plan.

In my last post, I argued that the public good isn’t always served by compromise. I used the pending Red Barn project in Petaluma as an example, with the StrongTowns theory as a measuring stick.

StrongTowns argues that, for many forms of development, the long-term infrastructure maintenance costs outstrip property tax revenues, resulting in unsustainable municipal finances for the later generations. Low-density development creates the greatest financial shortfalls. Based on the StrongTowns theory, I contended that the 93-home configuration proposed by Davidon Homes is a poor development choice. 

I further maintained that the alternative development concepts of 66, 43, and 28 homes are even worse. This is true despite the fact that many in the general public consider the lower home counts to be potentially laudable compromises.  So the possibility of compromise is leading us away from financial sustainability.

This perspective leads to the question of what land use might be appropriate. The answer is that the home count must be higher, much higher. To pick a number that’s arbitrary, but is likely in a reasonable range, let’s say 200 homes.

I’m sure that number will cause in spluttering all over Petaluma. But it shouldn’t. I’m not suggesting 200 homes of size and scale proposed by Davidon, which are perhaps 3,500 square feet. The Red Barn site can’t possibly accommodate that number of large homes.

Instead, I’m suggesting 200 much smaller homes, perhaps in the 1,200 square foot range. Furthermore, I’m not suggesting that the development be configured so each home has its own driveway and garage. It’s likely that long-term finances of that configuration would be only slightly better than the Davidon proposal.  Instead, I’m suggesting a layout called a "pocket neighborhood".

I’ve previously written about pocket neighborhoods. Last July, I offered a review of the book "Pocket Neighborhoods" written by experienced pocket neighborhood architect Ross Chapin. A few weeks later, I wrote about a couple of pocket neighborhoods that I visited in Seattle. And then I wrote about another pair of pocket neighborhoods that I visited across Lake Washington, in Redmond and Kirkland.

Looking at existing pocket neighborhoods, one typically finds densities such as twelve compact homes on a site that would have accommodated three single-family homes. Or twenty-eight compact home where six single-family homes would have fit. So suggesting 200 pocket neighborhood homes on a site that might accommodate up to 93 single-family homes is credible. Indeed, it may even be conservative.

A primary reason why a pocket neighborhood configuration offers an advantage over conventional development is that street access isn’t provided to all homes. Instead, for many of the homes, streets extend to shared garages, with short walks remaining to front doors. As a result, infrastructure needs are reduced and streets can be more easily aligned where topographic and environmental considerations demand.

I wish I had the time and the team to do a pocket neighborhood layout on the Red Barn site. Indeed, site design challenges like those are among the tasks I love in civil engineering. But lacking the resources, I’ll limit myself to a few thoughts about possible design elements.

I’d expect a higher density of homes in the lower portions of the site, but safely away from the creek. I’d hope that the site could accommodate a core that would function as a local community center, perhaps with a town square and limited retail elements, such as a small grocery, deli, and café.

Many pocket neighborhoods have shared structures for community meals and meetings. The red barn would nicely fill that need.

Although ridership may not justify the route for years, I’d like to see provision for a bus turnaround, giving Petaluma Transit the option to run service along D Street between Red Barn and the SMART station.

I’d like to see substantial bicycle parking, giving the Windsor residents an option to shop or to catch a bus to town without taking their car from their garage, a benefit as gasoline prices continue to rise.

Away from the core, I’d expect to see garages located in suitable locations on the lower slopes, from where compact homes and their minimal footprints would straggle up the hillsides. Many of the garages would be shared-wall single story structures. But perhaps the site would also demand a larger parking structure or two over which condominiums could be provided, further broadening the range of housing options.

It’s true that some homes may be at an extended distance from parking. A walking distance of 300 feet with a climb of 40 feet seems possible for the most far-flung homes. However, in a neighborhood adjoining the vast walking opportunities of Helen Putnam Park, it’s likely that a few homeowners would be eager to stretch their legs after a day of office duties and transit commuting, especially if the reward was a panoramic view of the neighborhood and the park from their front windows.

I think it likely that this type of development will reduce the on-site environmental impacts. However, at least until transit became a reality, it’s also likely that traffic would be worse under this option. I don’t have a good solution to offer, except to note that changing to new and more sustainable paradigms often results in temporary inconveniences. Such is the nature of change. (I live in a part of town where many of my trips rely on D Street. I’d be among the inconvenienced, but would happily accept the impact.)

How does this site concept measure up against the StrongTowns measuring stick? For the reasons, I delineated in my last post, it’s hard to get a complete handle on the municipal finance issues behind the StrongTowns argument, other than a credible sense that the theory is true.

But it seems likely the 200-home pocket neighborhood concept would have a higher tax base than the 93-home Davidon proposal. Although the residential square footage would be less, small homes generally have a higher value per square foot.

And the infrastructure maintenance costs would be less because less infrastructure would be required.

Whether StrongTowns financial sustainability would be met is impossible to say, but it certainly seems likely.

So where does this dreaming about a series of pocket neighborhoods on the Red Barn site mean with regard to the current Davidon proposal? The only outcome for which I can reasonably wish is the no-development alternative.

I’m not arguing that the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) justifies that result. Indeed, I haven’t read enough of the DEIR to have a legitimate opinion. Instead, I’m arguing that development options within the DEIR are so flawed, for reasons outside of the DEIR, that no development is the preferred result.

Please note also that I’m not arguing that a 200-home development is the best decision. To make that argument would be to pre-judge an EIR that may not be prepared for years. Instead, I’m arguing that a 200-home plan should be the proposal that is under study in an EIR and that the lower home count options now under study are all unacceptable for our descendents.

Effectively, what I’m arguing is that the General Plan is flawed and allows for consideration of development options that ill-serve later generations. But that isn’t meant as a criticism of the people who participated in preparation of the General Plan. The world has changed in the five years since the General Plan was adopted. The recession in particular has played a bright light on municipal finances. We should learn from that new knowledge, not blindly follow a document whose time may have passed.

So, if the Red Barn site remains vacant at this time, what do I think will happen over time? Although incorporation into the regional park is certainly a possibility, I suspect that the site will eventually be developed for housing. Petaluma has a fine location and climate, so continued growth seems likely.

If we can find the right tools to allow downtown development to compete fairly with greenfield development, I believe that much of the growth over the next twenty years will occur close to the urban core. But eventually, the downtown opportunities will be used up and slow horizontal growth will resume.

If I’m correct and the Red Barn site is one day developed, I hope the configuration is closer to a pocket neighborhood is than to any of the alternatives in the current DEIR.

At least that’s my opinion.

I find that I have again taken up more of your day than I had intended. I have a few final thoughts to offer, but will defer those to my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and three dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at Where Do We Go from Here. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and VibrantBayArea.

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Steven Kirk March 30, 2013 at 08:12 PM
Very interesting and unexpected approach. I'm sure your hunch is right that it will go against the grain of most - both within the community and from the developer. I initially balked at the idea, but upon some reflection think it's a bold approach worth considerable discussion. I continue to think the best all-around resolution is to keep the property completely undeveloped since it abuts the city's largest public open space and sits along the city's boundary. The principles of the transect suggest that the urban edge should be very lightly developed and populated. However, economic realities will almost surely lead to some type of development, and StrongTowns does indeed strongly suggest that higher population concentrations are more sustainable. In the Davidon situation, pocket neighborhood clustering might be the optimal resolution to these increasingly intractable situations. I hope your suggestion gets some real attention.
Dave Alden March 31, 2013 at 07:32 PM
Steve, thanks for the thoughtful response. You make an interesting point regarding transects. (For those who may not be familiar with the term, transects are to urban planning guides what zones are to conventional zoning ordinances. The principal differences are that zones give initial consideration to land use and then consider building shapes. Transects do the reverse. As a result, transect-type planning is often described as "form-based". The most intense land uses at the urban core are Transect-6 or T-6, while untouched land is T-1.) I agree that the urban fringe, as typified by the Red Barn site, should be T-3 and preferably T-2. But the problem is that the adjoining subdivisions are imcomplete T-4 developments. What's are missing the row house and retail components. So what is better for Petaluma, to use Red Barn to try to make a more complete T-4 development out of the land on the back of the west hills or to leave Red Barn undeveloped and Windsor flawed? It's a hard question. My next blog post will return to the topic.

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